|It is a common misconception that hummingbirds never rest. They actually spend considerable time perched on thin branches.|
August 1, 2011
Last winter, when the temperature dipped into the low 20s, the two bottlebrush trees in my yard suffered mild cold damage. Most branches survived, but on each tree, a single uppermost limb died.
Ever since, I've been intending to cut off those limbs. It looks silly when a healthy green tree has one obviously dead branch, especially right at the top. But as so often happens with minor projects, it took a back burner to more pressing matters. The trees remained untrimmed all winter, spring and summer.
Now that it's midsummer, I'm glad I procrastinated because I've come to realize that dead branches on the top of flowering bottlebrush trees have a purpose. They make ideal resting spots for hummingbirds. When these tiny fliers are not zooming from one nectar-producing cluster to another, they use the brown, leafless branches as perches.
I made this discovery while on the porch. One of the bottlebrush trees is about 15 feet away from the house, directly in front of where I was sitting. I was looking at the tree, berating myself for not doing the pruning, when I noticed the type of quick flying action that only hummingbirds produce.
I focused my attention on a tiny creature that weighs less than three paper clips. I saw it methodically circle the tree, poking its long beak into several flowers before alighting on the dead branch. Once perched, it sat. And sat. And sat.
When I think of hummingbirds, I think of them flying, their little wings beating a furious 60 to 80 times per second as they gather nectar from predominantly red-colored flowers. I know that to survive, they must consume anywhere from half to eight times their body weight each day, and that in addition to the sweet juice from flowers, they build muscle by eating protein-rich insects, spiders and pollen. What I didn't realize was how often they rest.
Hummingbirds spend just five to eight minutes of each waking hour eating. That leaves plenty of time between bursts of food-finding action to sit quietly, conserving energy. Rest is biologically beneficial because, when active, their little hearts beat about 1,260 times a minute, compared with 250 beats a minute when perched on a branch.
Perching suits these most diminutive members of the bird community. Their extremely short feet — which have three long toes in the front and one in the back, all with lengthy, curved nails — are practically useless for anything other than grabbing hold of thin limbs. Unlike other birds, hummingbirds are unable to walk or hop on the ground.
I squatted to get a better view of the bird in the bottlebrush tree. As I watched, the hummingbird scanned the sky from its top-of-the-tree vantage point. Just when I was beginning to wonder what it was looking for, two other hummingbirds zoomed in. In less time than it took me to register what was happening, the hummer buzzed off to chase the intruders away. Both male and female hummingbirds are territorial. Female birds defend their nesting territories and males protect what they consider their home turf.
I'm not sure if the bird I watched was a male or female, but I know it was successful in scaring off the other two hummers each of the multiple times they tried to approach the bottlebrush tree.
I had no idea that my avoidance of the pruning task would yield such positive results. If visits from hummingbirds happen when I leave dead bottlebrush limbs untrimmed, I wonder what would take place if I put off doing some of the other things on my outdoor to-do list? Let's see … the garden needs weeding, there's edging to do, plants to thin out, others to repot.
Hmm …I may have stumbled upon a procrastination justification!